Rebuilding A Champion: Two And A Half Vets On Special Teams

The Pittsburgh Steelers spent much of the time between their last playoff victory and now replenishing their roster in preparation for their next chance to make a push for a championship. Last season showed signs that the team was on its way out of that transitional phase after posting a division-winning 11-5 record following back to back .500 seasons.

Still, the Steelers failed to make it out of the divisional round, and have lost their last three postseason contests, dating back to Super Bowl XLV. They followed up that 2010 run with a 12-4 wildcard campaign that saw a first-round exit, and subsequently failed to return to the playoffs the following two years.

So how close might they be to righting the ship and returning to that place that they have been more than any other franchise—that is, holding up the Lombardi Trophy? One way to attempt to measure that would be to compare how this season’s lineup projects against past teams.

For these purposes, it might be helpful to cite both the 2008 and 2010 teams, which are, respectively, the teams that have claimed their most recent Super Bowl championship and their most recent Super Bowl appearance.

Special teams is not often a compelling topic of conversation for many fans of the game of football, but it’s worth discussing in this case if only because of the unusual history that the Steelers have had when it comes to punters and postseason runs in recent years.

The punting position has been somewhat nebulous ever since Chris Gardocki retired after the 2006 season. The Steelers drafted Daniel Sepulveda in the fourth round the following year, but he suffered an ACL tear prior to the 2008 season, necessitating the signing of Mitch Berger. And then Berger missed three games, forcing the Steelers to sign Paul Ernster for that three-game stretch.

While the Steelers suffered on special teams because of their punter, Jeff Reed proved to be solid, converting 27 of 31 during the regular season, and going five for five in the playoffs. Veteran long snapper Greg Warren was lost for the season with a knee injury of his own, however, which resulted in James Harrison snapping a punt over the gimpy Berger’s head for a safety. Ah, memories.

The intended trio of Reed, Warren, and Sepulveda were back in 2010, but, again, only one would finish on the roster, and this time it was Warren. Sepulveda suffered another injury, prompting the signing of Jeremy Kapinos, whose injury next season continued a vicious cycle of punters that remains today.

Reed struggled, and had some off the field issues, prompting his mid-season release. Shaun Suisham took over the next week, played very well the rest of the way, and has been here since, becoming the most accurate kicker in team history.

Suisham and Warren are rocks as specialists. The fact that there is a legitimate punting competition underway suggests that there is no rock at punter. Brad Wing is the incumbent, and the favorite, but after an inconsistent first season, he is certainly short on job security.

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